Defending Pac-12 South champion Arizona dug an 0-2 hole to open conference play, but got back on track in Week 6 with a 44-7 romp over Oregon State. With the win and upheaval throughout the league, the Wildcats are still in the hunt for the divisional title but cannot afford another setback.
A loss at Colorado would likely doom any remaining hope Arizona has to repeat atop the South — and Wildcats head coach Rich Rodriguez knows the Buffs’ capability of upending a contender.
“They have won a couple games, but they've also been very close to beating some very good teams, especially at home,” he said in his weekly press conference.
Motivated by the pursuit of its first bowl bid since 2007, and seeking to end a 13-game Pac-12 losing streak, Colorado is a dangerous opponent for the suddenly resurgent Wildcats.
Arizona at Colorado
Kickoff: 9 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: Colorado +8
Three Things to Watch
1. Arizona’s Rushing Attack
Rodriguez-coached teams have rushed for 299 (2014), 405 (2013) and 438 (2012) yards against Colorado.
Players have changed — Ka’Deem Carey, who set a Pac-12 record against Colorado in 2012 is now in the NFL — but Arizona’s ability to roll up rushing yards hasn’t.
The Wildcats are coming off a 368-yard deluge against Oregon State that included two multiple-touchdown rushers (Nick Wilson and Orlando Bradford) and 12.3 yards per carry from Jared Baker. Arizona is the seventh-most prolific rushing offense in college football, though could be without Wilson, who's listed as questionable on the most recent injury report.
Likewise, Colorado’s inability to stop the run effectively has carried over from years past. The Buffs rank No. 101 nationally in rush defense, surrendering 197.2 yards per game. Oregon and Arizona State hit the Buffs for almost 600 yards combined on the ground in the last outings, both losses.
While defending Arizona’s multifaceted rushing attack may have been easier a few weeks ago without the threat of a reliable pass, Anu Solomon’s return to the lineup gives the Wildcats balance to keep Colorado honest. Solomon hit Colorado for four touchdown passes a season ago.
2. Turnover Battle
Of Colorado’s improvements made from 2014 to '15, none stands out quite like its jump in turnover production. One of the nation’s worst in generating takeaways a season ago — the Buffs ranked No. 125 — Colorado ranks a respectable 37th nationally this season and No. 12 in interceptions.
The uptick in interceptions is particularly noteworthy, as the Buffs' nine so far in 2015 triples their output for the entire 2014 campaign.
Saturday, Colorado’s improved turnover-creating defense faces a stiff challenge in Solomon, who has yet to throw a pick this season. Despite problems with fumbles, most noticeably in a disastrous first quarter against UCLA, Arizona’s been solid protecting the ball.
Turnovers have been the Colorado offense’s Achilles heel this season. The Buffs have nine giveaways through six games, but eight of those came in their three losses. Meanwhile, of Arizona’s seven turnovers gained, all seven came in wins.
3. The Boulder Trap
Despite its current losing streak, Colorado is a team poised to score a major upset this season. This week screams upset possibility for the Buffs, and letdown for the Wildcats.
Arizona is still injury-plagued despite the return of Solomon, particularly on defense with linebackers Scooby Wright, Haden Gregory and Derrick Turituri leading the way.
Colorado also benefits from getting Arizona a week after a blowout as opposed to the losing it was coming off last week.
With an assuredly loud Homecoming crowd welcoming the Wildcats in Folsom Field, the Buffs have perhaps their best opportunity at a Pac-12 win since 2013, and a chance to get on the right side of .500 heading into the back-half of the season.
Last week’s romp over a young Oregon State team was probably the closest we have been to seeing the real Arizona this season — the Arizona Rodriguez hinted at Pac-12 media day could be the most talented in his four years at the helm.
The bevy of injuries the Wildcats have sustained have made consistency almost impossible, and could be an issue Saturday in the high elevation of Boulder.
Mike MacIntyre’s done an admirable job rebuilding Colorado into a competitive member of the Pac-12, but still lacks the wins to show for his efforts. The Buffs need to force turnovers, but that may be too much of a challenge against an Arizona offense that runs the football exceedingly well.